After Chris Smalling’s dismissal less than 40 minutes into Manchester United’s 1-0 loss at Manchester City with the sides all square, Louis van Gaal was once again left without a replacement centre-half who had made his Premier League debut before the start of this season.
However, 19-year-old next-in-line Paddy McNair had to wait until Marcos Rojo’s sickening dislocated-shoulder injury in the second half before making his Manchester derby debut.
Van Gaal instead plumped for midfield stalwart Michael Carrick, who hadn’t featured for club or country since May, to shore up the defence after Smalling’s pair of cautions.
This may have opened an intriguing window into the Dutch coach’s thinking as it was assumed, upon his Old Trafford arrival, that Van Gaal would attempt to implement the 3-5-2 formation that worked so well with the Netherlands during the World Cup.
In practice that hasn’t been possible, with centre-half quintet Jonny Evans, Phil Jones, Tyler Blackett and now Smalling and Rojo all giving the Iron Tulip headaches due to their unavailability already this term.
United still don’t have a dedicated deep-lying anchorman, with new signings Daley Blind and Ander Herrera both shaping more like box-to-box midfielders than defensive destroyers, while Marouane Fellaini’s talents mainly lie at the attacking end of the pitch.
They may not need one if Carrick, who also played as an emergency centre-half on a couple of occasions during Sir Alex Ferguson’s last season at the club, can make his mark on the backline.
If Van Gaal sets United up in a 3-5-2 with Carrick as the most advanced centre-half, the need for a holding midfielder will be largely negated, although full/wing-backs Rafael da Silva, Antonio Valencia and Luke Shaw’s athleticism would be tested to the hilt through such a system.
This would mean deploying Angel Di Maria on the left side of midfield, from where he claimed the Man of the Match award for Real Madrid in the Champions League final, while picking two from Herrera, Blind, Fellaini and Juan Mata to accompany him.
In spite of their defensive woes and current four-point mooring off the Champions League spots, United actually seem a fair bet to make the top four at 7/10, given three of their next four games are at home to Crystal Palace, Hull and Stoke.
Van Gaal’s side have claimed ten points from their last four Premier League fixtures at Old Trafford, which suggests they’ll be equipped to ride out this latest crisis in defence.